Want all the benefits of a big city with the simplicity and charm of a small one? Then Grand Rapids is the place for you. Located on the Grand River, after which it’s named, in the southwest section of the state about 25 miles east of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids offers everything from world-renowned art and historic sites to world-class golf courses, recreation and beaches. It’s no wonder Lonely Planet named this vibrant city of nearly 200,000 people the country’s No. 1 travel destination in 2014 and that Forbes has called downtown Grand Rapids one of the country's 10 best downtowns.
“We combine the cultural diversions of a cosmopolitan city with the spectacular recreation of an outdoor paradise,” says Janet Korn, senior vice president of Experience Grand Rapids. “When people visit here for the first time, they’re always impressed and surprised by what they encounter—how easy the city is to navigate, how much energy there is here, how amazing our infrastructure is, from our hotels to our convention center to our restaurants to our craft breweries to our museums. And we have clean streets and sidewalks.”
Travelers to the city enjoy several new amenities at the recently remodeled Gerald R. Ford International Airport, including two airline gates, expanded passenger hold rooms and two Grand Rapids Magazine travel stores.
From top-notch venues to gorgeous hotels, a variety of restaurants and an endless list of things to do, meeting and eventgoers have much to choose from in Grand Rapids.
“There’s just a general sense of, ‘There’s stuff goin’ on,’” Korn says.
Large Groups Welcome
How does limitless event space sound? Well, maybe not truly limitless, but it may as well be: There’s not much difference between unbounded meeting space and upwards of 337,000 square feet of it.
That is what the downtown Amway Hotel Collection combined with DeVos Place convention center and Van Andel Arena offer. The Amway Hotel Collection comprises three hotels—the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, JW Marriott Grand Rapids and Downtown Courtyard by Marriott. The campus is also home to 11 restaurants, cafes and lounges, including Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Cygnus 27 and six.one.six. While each hotel stands on its own, they are connected to one another and to DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena by a climate-controlled skyway.
“The skyway gives meeting planners an incredible sense of confidence that they don’t have to worry about inclement weather, whether it’s snow or rain,” says Mike Donnelly, general manager of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. “They [also] don’t have to worry about bussing their people between different hotels and the venues where the convention is going to be held.”
Four elegant ballrooms and 42 technology-rich meeting rooms and conference areas make up the Amway Grand Plaza’s 47,000 square feet of meeting space.
“Half of the hotel is historic, completed in 1913,” Donnelly says. “The other half is a 29-story glass tower that was built in 1981. And instead of letting the two sides kind of fuse together and create this mixture, we wanted to be true to each, and that’s where we have our two unique styles.
“Probably the most photographed spot in West Michigan is in our inner lobby of the original hotel, which was called the Pantlind,” he adds. “Whereas that side of the building exudes just this beautiful elegance, the tower side—the rooms included—has a very hip and modern look. It’s really catered to the millennial traveler.”
The JW Marriott offers more than 15,000 square feet of meeting space that includes 12 event rooms and seven maximum breakout rooms. The Downtown Courtyard has 10,000 square feet of meeting space that includes eight event rooms and two maximum breakout rooms.
DeVos Place features an exhibit hall with 162,000 square feet of uninterrupted, column free space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 26 subdividable meeting rooms with more than 32,000 square feet of space. The 12,000- seat Van Andel Arena is ideal for large groups.
Options for All Sizes
If you need a venue that maximizes convenience without sacrificing comfort, consider the DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Rapids Airport, which offers 7,500 square feet of adjustable event space.
“This hotel just recently did an entire topto-bottom renovation—the public spaces, the guest rooms and the meeting spaces,” Korn says. “A lot of our state association groups like to use the DoubleTree because of where it’s conveniently located. It also has complimentary parking because it’s in the suburbs.”
Another airport option for meeting and lodging is the Crown Plaza Grand Rapids – Airport, which offers more than 20,000 square feet of flexible event space for up to 600 people.
“It’s an upscale hotel and conference center,” says Karl Knieling, the Crowne Plaza’s director of sales and marketing. “We have two ballrooms—the 4,840-square-foot Grand Centennial and the 2,640-square-foot Grand River. In between them, we have a large atrium that’s used for pre-event parties, cocktail parties. We also have some breakout rooms for smaller groups.”
It’s mid-January, and the temperature is below zero. In the mood for a swim—or a slide? Then the Ramada Plaza is the place to stay. Rain or shine, it’s always a beautiful day at Castaway Bay, the hotel’s indoor pool area. The feature attraction is Splash Tower, a 180-foot water slide, while the Jacuzzi Tiki Hut Spa is a great place to relax. As for meeting space, there are five conference rooms totaling 4,800 square feet that accommodate up to 200 people.
Another fine option for lodging is the Hyatt Place Grand Rapids – South. Guests enjoy a comfortable atmosphere and a free breakfast. Patrons can grab a bite 24/7 at the Gallery or Bakery Café, which also serves Starbucks coffee and award-winning wines and beers. Hyatt Place is well-suited to small corporate and executive meetings, offering 1,200 square feet of flexible meeting space.
A hot, complimentary breakfast buffet, a whirlpool tub and a fitness center are among the amenities provided by the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson Grand Rapids Airport. There is also a 24-hour business center, and the hotel’s meeting room can accommodate up to 15 people and comes equipped with free high-speed Internet access.
Dining and Entertainment
You’ve heard of one-stop shopping? At The B.O.B. (an acronym for Big Old Building), you’ve got one-stop entertainment. The 70,000-square-foot, four-story, red-brick building was constructed in 1903 as Judson’s grocery warehouse. It stood vacant for decades. CEO Greg Gilmore renamed it The B.O.B. in 1997.
Counting the brewery, The B.O.B. offers four restaurants, including Judson’s Steakhouse, along with a comedy club, a live music club, a dueling piano club, a billiard room, a wine cellar, a banquet facility, a dance club and patios. “We cater very much to large groups like conventions and things like that,” Gilmore says. “Depending on the size of the group, we can accommodate them in one of the restaurants or in a private space or even outdoors.
We can even rent out the entire building for one event for up to a couple thousand people. The best thing about The B.O.B is, if it’s snowing out, people don’t have to traipse from bar to bar or restaurant to restaurant. They can find a lot of things to do in this one building.”
For fresh Mediterranean country cuisine made from scratch, try Bistro Bella Vita. This eatery offers a range of dining experiences, from a pizza and beer with friends to an elegant chef’s table meal paired with appropriate wines. The restaurant’s banquet room can accommodate up to 80 people for a seated affair and 120 for a standing reception.
At Reds on the River, situated on the banks of the Rogue River, patrons enjoy a relaxed ambiance of Tuscan décor inside and an expansive outdoor deck and bar for warmweather fun, or a glowing, massive circular fireplace on winter evenings. For private events, the Riverside Room provides space adjacent to the wine cellar, with a private deck that can accommodate up to 50 people.
Classic Italian recipes, more than 1,200 varieties of wine, fine dining inside and casual dining outside, even an outdoor bocce ball court—welcome to Noto’s Old World Italian Dining, a family-owned business that began in 1982 and has been at its present location for 18 years. Besides the main floor, which can seat up to 700 people, five private event rooms can hold from 60 to 400.
Beer, Beer, Beer
Michigan’s second-largest city was named Beer City USA in 2012 and 2013 by USA Today and 10Best. It was also voted one of the Top 10 Vacation Cities for Beer Lovers by TheStreet.com.
There are several brewery tours to choose from in Grand Rapids, perhaps the most unique being the Craft Beer Tour, in which beer connoisseurs plan their own routes along a trail of more than 30 breweries in and around Grand Rapids.
“The main reason Lonely Planet recognized us last year was our efforts to promote craft beer here,” Korn says. “We have many, many visitors coming every week taking the Craft Beer Tour and the other beer tours.”
HopCat, one of 15 breweries in Grand Rapids, was named by RateBeer.com as the No. 1 brewpub in the nation and the thirdbest beer bar in the world. The same website voted Founders Brewing Co., the state’s second-largest brewery, the third-best brewery on earth.
“Our tap room is one of the highlights of West Michigan,” says Dave Engbers, cofounder of Founders Brewing. “It really needs to be experienced. It’s this phenomenal tap room with a sprawling bar. It’s got two bars inside and one outside. We’ve also got a deli, live bands three nights a week and a private meeting space for up to 120 people (60 seated).
“But we’re a brewery first and foremost,” he adds. “We’re constantly innovating new beers and new beer styles.”
Of course, there’s more to Grand Rapids than suds. Among the city’s jewels is the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, a 158-acre campus showcasing internationally acclaimed sculptures and themed gardens featuring specialized plants from around the world, including an 8-acre Japanese garden that opened in June. The venue also hosts exhibitions and summer concerts featuring national and international musicians.
Meijer Gardens offers multiple event spaces, including a large subdividable ballroom, providing guests with diverse options. Amenities include audio-visual, certified technical specialists and creative catering choices.
Art lovers will enjoy exploring the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which boasts a strong collection of 19th- and 20th-century art and was the first museum to be LEED-Gold certified. It offers guests beautiful views of downtown from its contemporary interior spaces. The museum's main event space can host 450 standing, 375 seated.
Visitors to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum not only get to view history but also participate in it. The permanent exhibits provide highlights of the lives of the former president and Mrs. Ford. Temporary exhibits draw upon the rich holdings of the entire Presidential library system, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and others. Guided tours are available Monday through Wednesday during the school year.
Take a ride on the Coopersville and Marne Railway, an all-volunteer historic railway operating vintage locomotives and circa-1920s cars from Coopersville to Marne and back, a 14-mile excursion round trip. The railway preserves a chunk of railroad history and educates passengers along the way. Passenger trains run from March 21 to December 20.
And at the Downtown Market Grand Rapids, the outdoor farmers market offers Michigan produce, while its Market Hall hosts butchers, bakers, fishmongers and more. The market is also home to full-service restaurants, Slows Bar BQ and Social Kitchen and Bar.
If you'd like to hold a private event at the Downtown Market, the banquet room seats up to 250 people, the Greenhouse holds up to 150 and the teaching kitchen has a capacity of 25. There are also two meeting rooms for groups of 10-200.